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HealthTap Turns to Telemedicine, but Will Consumers Pay?

The startup aims to improve medical compliance with checklists, notifications and more.

HealthTap is unveiling an updated version of its product on Wednesday that puts the startup squarely in the increasingly competitive telemedicine space.

It’s a new direction for the Palo Alto, Calif., company, which until now has focused on building a medical question-and-answer service by tapping into expertise from a network of tens of thousands of doctors.

Users will still be able to access that product for free, but those willing to shell out $99 a month (plus $10 for every additional family member) will be able engage in actual medical consultations through HealthTap Prime. The subscription service, available through the company’s mobile apps and online site, offers 24/7 access to licensed physicians via video, audio or chat.

HealthTap’s investors include Khosla Ventures, Mayfield Fund, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Innovation Endeavors.

I’m dubious that loads of consumers will be willing to pay that much, especially on top of existing insurance premiums, given the limitations of mobile medicine. Doctors can only prescribe certain drugs remotely, while blood tests and other diagnostics still require in-person visits.

Telemedicine makes perfect sense in and of itself, especially for relatively healthy people who only need to check in with their doctors occasionally and don’t want the hassle of physically getting to a clinic.

But HealthTap’s rivals in the space are generally charging less, at least for the basic level of these services.

For $49 a month, Better offers users “24/7 access to a personal health assistant, nurse line, automated symptom checker, personalized health information, electronic medical records and more,” as I previously reported. Meanwhile, Doctor on Demand offers one-time video consultations for $40 while American Well provides them for $49.

But in an interview, Chief Executive Ron Gutman winced at the term telemedicine. While Prime clearly conforms to the definition, he stressed that it goes beyond these sorts of services. In fact, he says, they’re aiming to do more than your typical physician.

“Today, you go to the doctor, they will diagnose you, give you a prescription and then you’re on your own,” Gutman said. “People don’t adhere to the plan they’re getting, so we need to be there for them.”

Specifically, he said Prime will provide ongoing support after the consultation through customized checklists, personalized health news and various reminders and notifications. It’s all aimed at nudging patients to continue their prescribed treatment or follow up if things don’t improve.

“We’re not just in the business of scheduling appointments or finding information,” Gutman said. “We’re in the business of making people feel good.”

It’s true that compliance rates in medicine are surprisingly low, particularly for chronic conditions. But the root causes are varied and complicated: Some can’t afford the high cost of prescription drugs, some want to ignore their illnesses and some simply start to feel better on their own.

So it’s unclear whether app notifications will be the thing that cracks this deep-seated challenge in medicine — and it’s equally uncertain whether patients will see such prods as an added level of service for which they’re willing to pay more.

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